India’s cultural diversity punctuates the calendar with a variety of festivals. Some of them are celebrated for the welcome break they provide without realizing its significance, and some celebrated with zest and vigour.
Come March, and the colours on the faces will reappear as they welcome the festival of colours: Holi.
This free-for-all carnival of colours has mixed reactions, as this festival provides a license for a little indulgence that may make some uncomfortable.
Like most festivals Holi too has some legends that lend colour to it.
There is a symbolic myth behind Holi and it is celebrated as a festival of love. The Hindu deity Krishna, as a baby, developed his characteristic dark blue hue because the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his youth, the blue hued Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha and other girls would like him. Tired of his repeated questions, his mother asks him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. Ever since, the playful colouring of Radha’s face has been commemorated as Holi.
According to another legend, King Hiranyakashipu, the King of Multan had earned a boon that made him virtually indestructible. He grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone worship only him. Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, however, disagreed and remained devoted to Lord Vishnu. The infuriated Hiranyakashipu thus subjected Prahlada to cruel punishments, none of which affected the boy or his resolve. Finally, Holika, Prahlada’s evil aunt, wearing a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. As the tongues of fire soared upwards, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada. Holika burned, and Prahlada survived. Hiranyakashipu was furious. Unable to control his anger, he swung his mace which smashed a pillar. There was a tumultuous sound, and Lord Vishnu appeared as Lord Narasimha and killed Hiranyakashipu. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika.
The Holi festival, Phalgun, has further cultural significance, most prominently, it celebrates the beginning of spring. In 17th century literature it was identified as a festival that celebrated agriculture, commemorated good spring harvests, and the fertile land. People believed it was a time to enjoy spring’s abundant colours as they bid farewell to winter.
It is also a festive day to cleanse oneself: to end and rid oneself of past errors, to end conflicts by meeting others, a day to forget and forgive. People reset and renew ruptured relationships, end conflicts and rid themselves of the accumulated emotional impurities from the past.
Holi also marks the start of spring, and for many the start of the New Year.